Like most American teachers, we have stopped all physical classes since the COVID-19 crisis shut our schools down. However, thanks to modern technology, we have been teaching all our group classes online for the past two weeks. So far feedback from teachers, students and parents have been positive, and we were able to continue our students’ learning without too much disruption. There were many hurdles to jump through and we’re still solving technical issues daily, but we have also learned a few surprises about teaching online group classes that we had not expected before we started this process.
Effective Learning Using Virtual Whiteboards
The teaching (and learning) has so far been effective on online platforms such as Zoom. We need to adjust some of our lesson delivery, e.g. the use of physical manipulative for the “concrete” part of the concrete-pictorial-abstract (CPA) process is out of question, but most of the time, illustrating on the whiteboard, “writing” over worksheets etc is as clear as the in-person classes.
However, the platform we tried so far are not very conducive to letting students present their work, an integral part of small group math classes. Teachers are equipped with either a stylus to write on a touchscreen or a external drawing tablet, but it is not reasonable to assume students have similar hardware or are comfortable enough with the technology to not interfere with their learning. Hence most of the time, students work out their answers on paper and held it up to show the class when sharing their thinking. This is a little frustrating, especially for younger kids, and highlights one of the shortcomings of real-time education platforms that evolved from corporate online meeting applications.
To overcome this, we have to rely more on verbal communications, with both teachers and students using more words to describe their thinking than visual presentation. A little patience in the process helps, especially in the beginning.
Classroom Management Is Still Crucial In Online Group Classes
It took us only one day to realize we need to re-establish ground rules when it comes to online group classes. We quickly wrote out a set of expected online classroom behavior so that both teachers and students are on the same page. These rules include:
- No using chat feature for student to student chatting, but only to inform the teacher if the video or audio is malfunctioning.
- Ask to be excused before leaving, e.g. for bathroom breaks etc.
- Mute all students when not in discussion, i.e. when the teacher is presenting.
- Do not draw on the virtual whiteboard when not told to do so.
At the first online lesson, we asked students to acknowledge these new rules. They soon understood that despite the classes being moved online, we’re trying to learn as before and observing these behaviors makes it easier for everyone else to participate in the lessons. In subsequent lessons, teachers have to remind students of the rules whenever students forget.
Students Social Behavior
All our offline classes are an hour and a half long. At first, we were concerned if students, especially younger kids, were able to keep their attention for the full 90 mins if all they have is a virtual whiteboard. However, we found that the group class dynamics that helped stimulate thinking and discussions were readily ported to an online setting, as soon as the kids see their friends on their screen. Once we ground rules were established and students got comfortable with the new platform, discussions started to flow.
On the other hand, we observed some social behaviors that were not what we expected. This may be because the students are still getting used to the online social setting, so our observation is not very conclusive. Firstly, we observed that some of the more active kids seemed more “calm” online. We suspect it is due to the fact that in the physical classroom, they were trying to get the attention of their classmates or teacher, but in the remote online environment, everybody is looking at everyone else. Secondly, we also observed that quiet kids start to speak up. We think this may be because their natural voice used to be drowned out in usual classroom setting or cannot project to the whole classroom, but with the laptop’s microphone, everyone can hear each other clearly. So, we were very happy to see that in this case, technology actually serves to level out some inequalities in the classroom!
Obviously, these are uncharted waters, and all of us are still in the testing phase of this online learning model, so none of our observations so far have been very conclusive. Teaching online group classes is very different from teaching one-to-one online because of the group dynamics, and also different from teaching in-person group classes. While we adjust to this new norm, it is very reassuring to see that despite the challenges and discomfort, the learning continues without break. Who knows, we may find things that work better in this new way of teaching.